Chicago hotel workers want a win for everyone

October 5, 2018

The Chicago UNITE HERE strike continues at four hotels, but workers are celebrating victories at 22 others — and another city is on the picket line, writes Joseph Sinclair.

WORKERS AT 22 of Chicago's 26 striking hotels have ratified contracts that reportedly achieved several key demands.

The strike goes on at the remaining four hotels, where members of UNITE HERE Local 1, emboldened by victories for their sisters and brothers, are prepared for an extended battle with management as they seek year-round health care for all workers, higher pay and decreased workloads. As this article was being written, the Hyatt Regency, Hyatt McCormick Place and Park Hyatt Chicago, as well as the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza, reportedly became the latest to settle.

While the specifics of the ratified agreements are being withheld at the union’s request, workers at the hotels that have settled are celebrating what they consider a decisive victory. Multiple press releases indicate that the strikers’ primary demand — for year-round health care to cover all workers, even those laid off during the slower winter months, without an increase in individual costs — has been won.

Chicago hotel workers strike for a living wage and dignity on the job
Chicago hotel workers strike for a living wage and dignity on the job (UNITE HERE Local 1 | Facebook)

As workers at the remaining hotels dig in for what might be a long fight, picketing tactics have evolved.

A decision was made to end all-night pickets, allowing workers a chance to rest and be with their families. Organizers have also started bringing together strikers from surrounding hotels and holding mass rallies at single locations to boost morale and visibility.

But the determined spirit of the rank and file hasn’t diminished, even if tactics are changing.

Workers who have already won contracts visit striking hotels in solidarity — including some former strikers who became renowned for their ability to pump up the crowd by banging drums, leading chants, dancing and otherwise encouraging workers to stay strong.

Picketers have also begun bringing along large red swaths of fabric and colorful scarves to create a cheerful, unbroken symbol of unity.

“I don’t know who brought the fabric first,” said one worker. “The union didn’t say anything. We’re just doing everything we can to stay energized and excited. We want it to feel like a festival, and we want management to know we will be here as long as it takes. We aren’t giving up!”

Walking through downtown Chicago, you can still hear the resolve of the hotel workers from blocks away as drumbeats that were once simple rhythms have evolved into complicated jams. Chants of “Who are we? Local 1!” have become a spirited call and response that wouldn’t sound out of place at a party.

MOST NOTABLE among the holdouts had been the three Hyatt locations where more than 1,000 workers remained on strike until a reported settlement just before this article was published.

Recently under fire for not only hosting, but offering a discount to the Islamophobic hate group ACT for America, Hyatt — a chain founded by the super-rich Pritzker family — had repeatedly walked out of negotiations at what ought to be a politically inopportune time.

Illinois’ Democratic gubernatorial candidate is J.B. Pritzker, whose estimated $3.4 billion net worth came from the family fortune amassed via the Hyatt hotel chain when it was part of the Pritzker Group, a private equity firm, until March 2017. Pritzker used his personal fortune to self-fund his campaign to the tune of $146.5 million.

On October 1, Pritzker opted to attend a campaign event with Hillary Clinton over joining striking workers in solidarity.

Asked for comment, the Pritzker campaign had the gall to release a statement claiming: “J.B. stands with the labor movement across Illinois in the fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions.” Campaign ads feature his support for an April 2017 SEIU strike — but his absence on hotel picket lines had been conspicuous.

This is far from the first time that Pritzker ended up on the wrong side of a workers’ struggle.

While giving a record $100 million donation to Northwestern University, for example, Pritzker refused to acknowledge calls for the endowment to be attached to language demanding Northwestern University end its illegal refusal to recognize the graduate student workers’ union.

J.B. claims in his campaign ads to be a leader of the resistance against Trump — yet he sided with Trump and his anti-union National Labor Relations Board in an illegal bid to strip graduate students of their right to collective bargaining.

Another Chicago company Pritzker has a financial stake in, SeaDog Ventures, was also actively fighting unionization efforts by workers outraged over increased hours and workloads — until Pritzker was confronted on camera about the union-busting efforts.

And, of course, Hyatt management launched many an attack on unions and workers while the Pritzkers were in command.

While a statement from J.B.’s campaign claimed he had a sterling pro-worker record and pointed to endorsements by union leadership, he was silent in calling on hotel management to agree to the just demands of workers or even stop walking out on bargaining.

WITH MORE than 80 percent of striking hotels ratifying contracts as the strike nears its one-month anniversary, the battle in Chicago is clearly inspiring hotel workers in other cities.

There have been strike authorization votes in cities ranging from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Seattle to Detroit, but on October 3, Boston’s UNITE HERE Local 26 became the first city to follow Chicago onto the picket line.

More than 1,500 workers at seven Marriott hotels walked off the job, fighting for a living wage in a city where the ballooning cost of living has far outpaced workers’ incomes. Strikers took the picket line with the familiar red and white UNITE HERE placards seen in Chicago, along with signs reading: “One job should be enough.”

In San Francisco, Local 2 hotel workers have voted to authorize a walkout and are preparing for a fight. The demands are familiar: a livable wage, lighter workloads and better conditions. The workers are also calling for guaranteed job security as automation, such as bartending machines, threaten workers’ livelihoods at companies already generating massive profits.

“We are continuing negotiations, but today, we are also preparing in earnest for a strike against the Marriott Corporation,” said Local 2 President Anand Singh at a press conference. “A corporation that makes billions off of our backs. The men and women who drive profits and success for this company deserve a fair shake. One job should be enough, and we are prepared to make that a reality. We are deadly serious, and we are going to do whatever it takes.”

The strike authorization was approved after contracts lapsed a month ago, resulting in a brief walkout that ended in a call for a strike vote and chants of “We’ll be back!” Now, Local 2 plans to make good on this promise. According to its Facebook page, “A strike could happen at any time,” and workers should “stay on the job until you receive clear direction from the union.”

From Chicago to these other cities, one thing is certain: UNITE HERE members are learning about their power with each hotel that wins, and each day that the strikes in Chicago continue. The workers who have already won in Chicago recognize the need for solidarity with those who are still on the picket line — and those striking workers know they are setting an example for others across the country.

“At first, we didn’t join because we were scared,” said a housekeeper at the Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile, where workers became the 26th hotel to go on strike in the city, hitting the picket line on September 10, three days after the workers at other hotels struck began.

“But when we found out we were safe, and when we saw everyone else fighting for health care, better conditions and their families, we knew we could, too. Now we are out here until we get what we need for our families.”

Asked about other cities where workers are preparing for a strike, the worker said over the sounds of chants, drums and supportive honks: “I hope they see what we are doing and are inspired. I hope they know that they deserve to be treated right for their hard work, and that they can win, too!”

Further Reading

From the archives